I am moved by Patricia Clarkson's performance, in the fine film Cairo Time, as Juliette, a fashion magazine editor who is meeting her husband in the Egyptian capital. This is pleasingly understated acting. Walking in a vibrant, crowded, unfamiliar city, she reacts to much of what is going on around her with a series of little smiles. But Juliette also is sorrowful. That she mostly keeps to herself.
Written and directed by Ruba Nadda, Cairo Time is a screen romance that dares to be sad, and it also dares to take seriously the yearnings of middle-aged people. Perhaps most admirably, the film is a pointed commentary on gender relations in the Muslim world. In that regard, and in others, the film is a smart, subtle mirror image of last summer's dismal Sex and the City 2, which saw shallow New Yorkers bringing a feminist message to Abu Dhabi via a painful karaoke performance of "I Am Woman." Cairo Time depicts a social dynamic that, I'm guessing, would resist even the transformative power of karaoke.
Juliette is supposed to meet her husband, Mark (Tom McCamus), who works with the United Nations at a refugee camp in Gaza. The two have planned to vacation in Cairo, but he is stuck at the camp. So Mark has arranged for a former U.N. associate, Tarek, to meet Juliette at the airport. But Mark is delayed again and again, and it's established early on that Juliette can't really wander around Cairo by herself without being bothered by leering, jostling young men. So it falls to Tarek to show her around. Sad-eyed Tarek is played, appealingly, by Alexander Siddiq, who's best known for playing the brash young Dr. Bashir on seven seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Tarek has left the U.N., and now he owns a cafe where men - only men - puff idly on hookahs and play chess. He is unattached, though we learn early on that as a young man he loved Yasmeen (Amina Annabi). But it didn't work out, because she is Christian and he is Muslim. "Here we believe in fate," he says, dramatically, by way of explanation, and it's one of several instances when Nadda's screenplay is a little pat in demarcating the cultural divide. Wittier and more successful is an exchange that comes when Tarek learns Juliette can't swim. "I thought all Westerners had swimming pools," he teases. "I thought you all had four wives," she shoots back. "Three," he corrects, with a twinkle.
Juliette and Tarek get close, and eventually there is a betrayal so chaste it is downright Victorian. And then, in a quick moment, we see that Juliette - a workaholic empty-nester with a friendly stranger for a husband - is lonelier than she ever lets on. She quietly registers regret that verges on horror. It's startling and devastating.